Howard Gossage, 1960s Marketer of Marshall McLuhan

15Jul12

Howard Gossage, in front of his converted Firehouse, which housed his San Francisco advertising agency

Howard Luck Gossage (1917–1969), known as “The Socrates of San Francisco,” was an advertising innovator and iconoclast during the “Mad Men” era. A non-conformist who railed against the norms of so-called scientific advertising in his day, Gossage introduced several innovative techniques to the advertising practice that would only become appreciated decades after his death.

Gossage is credited with introducing the media theorist Marshall McLuhan to media and corporate leaders thereby providing McLuhan his entry into mainstream renown.More widely, Gossage was involved in some of the first environmental campaigning in the USA with the Sierra Club, and in the establishment of Friends of the Earth through his friendship with David Brower. Co-founder at age 36 of the advertising agency Wiener & Gossage, Howard Gossage is listed by Advertising Age at number 23 of its 100 advertising people of the 20th century. AdAge.com calls Gossage a “copywriter who influenced admakers worldwide.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Gossage

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The following is a short excerpt from Steve Harrison’s recent biography of Howard Gossage (from Chapter 5, “Launching Marshall McLuhan, and the birth of social networks” in Harrison, S. (2012). Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man –  An Eyewitness Account of the life and Times of Howard Luck Gossage: 1960s Most Innovative, Influential & Irreverent Advertising Genius. Adworld Press.

… Gossage felt that “McLuhan’s most powerful appeal, in the end, is to those who have thought themselves into a sort of intellectual isolation, who lie awake and groan ‘doesn’t anyone else think like me?’” 

According to his wife, Sally, Gossage was actually lying in bed late one night in February 1965 when his intellectual isolation came abruptly to an end. “I remember I was reading some sort of wonderful novel and Howard was reading Marshall McLuhan’s book [Understanding Media, published in 1964] and he said ‘I get it, I understand!’ and I said ‘What? and he said ‘McLuhan is assuming that the reader already knows the background stuff that McLuhan knows so he’s writing in shorthand. It needs to be filled in. I’m going to fix it.’ And the next thing I know he’s on the ‘phone and he’s got Marshall McLuhan on the ‘phone in Canada and he says ‘McLuhan, do you want to be famous?’ 

… Jerry Mander has a similar recollection of their first contact. “Howard Gossage discovered Marshall McLuhan as far as I can see. He launched Marshall McLuhan. He’d read that book and he said ‘Mander, look at this. This guy’s fantastic. This is the most amazing person, let’s call him up’. At that time McLuhan was not a well-known character. His book had just come out. I don’t know how Howard got a hold of it but he had read it cover to cover in a flash and said, ‘This is the best thing on media that’s ever been done, and he called him up on the ‘phone and his opening line was ‘Dr. McLuhan, how would you like to be famous?’ 

By the time the firehouse seminar took place in August 1965, Gossage had already delivered on his promise. Back in May, Gossage and his partner Dr. Gerald Feigen in their recently formed consultancy, Generalists, Inc., had invested $6,000 and taken the little-known academic to the East Coast. There, in restaurants affordable only to those on corporate welfare, he was introduced to the nation’s leading media owners, newspaper reporters, TV journalists and admen. 

Breathing surprisingly easily in the rarefied atmosphere of the corporate élite, the 53 year-old conservative academic in the striped seersucker suit and plastic clip-on bow tie took delight in telling the people who either ran or had found fame and fortune working in the media that, frankly, they really knew nothing about it. (pp. 95-96)

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